Conflict, theology and history make Muslims more religious than others, experts say
A recent global survey suggests that Muslims are more religious than Christians and Hindus.
December 3rd, 2011
10:00 PM ET

Conflict, theology and history make Muslims more religious than others, experts say

By Richard Allen Greene, CNN

(CNN) - Every religion has its true believers and its doubters, its pious and its pragmatists, but new evidence suggests that Muslims tend to be more committed to their faith than other believers.

Muslims are much more likely than Christians and Hindus to say that their own faith is the only true path to paradise, according to a recent global survey, and they are more inclined to say their religion is an important part of their daily lives.

Muslims also have a much greater tendency to say their religion motivates them to do good works, said the survey, released over the summer by Ipsos-Mori, a British research company that polls around the world.

Islam is the world's second-largest religion - behind Christianity and ahead of Hinduism, the third largest. With some 1.5 billion followers and rising, Islam's influence may be growing even faster than its numbers as the Arab Spring topples long-reigning secular rulers and opens the way to religiously inspired political parties.

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But while there's no doubt about the importance of Islam, experts have different theories about why Muslims appear to be more religious than members of other global faiths - and contrasting views on whether to fear the depth of Muslims' commitment to their faith.

One explanation lies in current affairs, says Azyumardi Azra, an expert on Islam in Indonesia, the world's most populous Muslim majority country.

Many Muslims increasingly define themselves in contrast with what they see as the Christian West, says Azra, the director of the graduate school at the State Islamic University in Jakarta.

"When they confront the West that they perceive or misperceive as morally in decline, many Muslims feel that Islam is the best way of life. Islam for them is the only salvation," he says.

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That feeling has become stronger since the September 11 attacks, as many Muslims believe there is a "growing conflict between Islam and the so-called West," he says.

"Unfortunately this growing attachment to Islam among Muslims in general has been used and abused by literal-minded Muslims and the jihadists for their own purposes," he says.

But other experts say that deep religious commitment doesn't necessarily lead to violence.

"Being more religious doesn't necessarily mean that they will become suicide bombers," says Ed Husain, a former radical Islamist who is now a Middle East expert at the Council on Foreign Relations in New York.

In fact, Husain argues that religious upbringing "could be an antidote" to radicalism.

American Muslim women who cover explain their choice

The people most likely to become Islamist radicals, he says, are those who were raised without a religious education and came to Islam later, as "born-agains."

Muslims raised with a grounding in their religion are better able to resist the distortions of Islam peddled by recruiters to radical causes, some experts like Husain argue, making them less likely to turn to violence.

But he agrees that Muslims are strongly attached to their faith, and says the reason lies in the religion itself.

"Muslims have this mindset that we alone possess the final truth," Husain says.

Muslims believe "Jews and Christians went before us and Mohammed was the last prophet," says Husain, whose book "The Islamist" chronicles his experiences with radicals. "Our prophet aimed to nullify the message of the previous prophets."

The depth of the Muslim commitment to Islam is not only a matter of theology and current events, but of education and history, as well, other experts say.

"Where religion is linked into the state institutions, where religion is deeply ingrained from childhood, you are getting this feeling that 'My way is the only way,'" says Fiyaz Mughal, the director of Faith Matters, a conflict-resolution organization in London.

The Ipsos-Mori survey results included two countries with a strong link between religion and the state: Legally Muslim Saudi Arabia, which calls itself the guardian of Islam's two holiest sites, Mecca and Medina; and Indonesia, home of the world's largest Muslim population.

The third majority Muslim country in the study is Turkey, which has a very different relationship with religion. It was founded after World War I as a legally secular country. But despite generations of trying to separate mosque and state, Turkey is now governed by an Islam-inspired party, the AKP.

Turkey's experience shows how difficult it can be to untangle government and religion in Muslim majority countries and helps explain the Muslim commitment to their religion, says Azyumardi Azra, the Indonesia expert.

He notes that there has been no "Enlightenment" in Islam as there was in Europe in the 17th and 18th centuries, weakening the link between church and state in many Christian countries.

"Muslim communities have never experienced intense secularization that took place in Europe and the West in general," says Azra. "So Islam is still adhered to very strongly."

But it's not only the link between mosque and state in many Muslim majority countries that ties followers to their faith, says professor Akbar Ahmed, a former Pakistani diplomat who has written a book about Islam around the world.

Like Christians who wear "What Would Jesus Do?" bracelets, many Muslims feel a deep personal connection to the founder of their faith, the prophet Muhammad, he says.

Muhammad isn't simply a historical figure to them, but rather a personal inspiration to hundreds of millions of people around the world today.

"When a Muslim is fasting or is asked to give charity or behave in a certain way, he is constantly reminded of the example set by the prophet many centuries ago," argues Ahmed, the author of "Journey Into Islam: The Crisis of Globalization."

His book is based on interviews with Muslims around the world, and one thing he found wherever he traveled was admiration for Muhammad.

"One of the questions was, 'Who is your role model?' From Morocco to Indonesia, it was the prophet, the prophet, the prophet," says Ahmed, the Ibn Khaldun Chair of Islamic Studies at American University in Washington.

But while Ahmed sees similar patterns across the Islamic world, Ed Husain, the former radical, said it was important to understand its diversity, as well.

"There is no monolithic religiosity - Muslims in Indonesia and Saudi Arabia are following different versions of Islam," says Husain. "All we're seeing (in the survey) is an adherence to a faith."

Political scientist Farid Senzai, director of research at the Institute for Social Policy and Understanding in Washington, raised questions about the survey's findings.

"Look at the countries that are surveyed - Saudi Arabia, Indonesia and Turkey," he says. "There are about 300 million Muslims in those three countries, (who make up) about 20% of Muslims globally."

Islam is "incredibly important" in Saudi Arabia, he says.

"But in Tunisia or Morocco you could have had a different result. It would have been nice if they had picked a few more Arab countries and had a bit more diversity," says Senzai.

The pollster, Ipsos-Mori, does monthly surveys in 24 countries, three of which are majority Muslim – Turkey, Indonesia and Saudi Arabia. The other countries range from India to the United States, and Mexico to South Korea, and are the same each month, regardless of the subject the pollsters are investigating.

In the survey released in July, about six in 10 Muslims in the survey said their religion was the only way to salvation, while only a quarter of Hindus and two out of 10 Christians made that claim about their own faiths.

More than nine out of 10 Muslims said their faith was important in their lives, while the figure was 86% for Hindus and 66% for Christians.

Ipsos-Mori surveyed 18,473 adults via an online panel in April and released the findings in July. Results were weighted to make the results as representative as possible, but the pollster cautioned that because the survey was conducted online, it was harder to get representative results in poorer countries where internet access is not widespread.

CNN polling director Keating Holland also warns that in an "opt-in" survey, where respondents actively choose to participate, results tend to come from "people who are confident in their opinions and express them openly... not good for intensely private matters like faith or income or sex."

Online surveys in countries that are not entirely free are also open to the possibility that pollsters get "the approved response" in those nations, "where the people who are most likely to be willing to talk about such matters are the ones who hold, or at least verbalize, opinions that won't get them in trouble if they are expressed," Holland says.

That may have been an issue in Saudi Arabia, where respondents were given the choice of not answering questions on religion due to their potential sensitivity in the kingdom. The Saudi sample was the smallest, with 354 participants, meaning "findings for Saudi Arabia must be treated with caution," Ipsos-Mori said.

About 1,000 people participated in most countries, but sample sizes were smaller in the three majority Muslim countries and in eight other countries.

The survey participants did not reflect the true percentage of Christians and Muslims in the world. Christians were over-represented – as were people who said they had no religion – and Muslims were under-represented.

Nearly half the respondents identified themselves as Christian. Eleven percent were Muslim, 4% were Buddhist, 3% were Hindu and 3% were "other." A quarter said they had no religion and 6% refused to say.

Fiyaz Mughal, the interfaith expert, argues that even though the countries surveyed might not be representative of the entire Muslim world, the findings about Muslims rang broadly true. Muslims in different countries were committed to their faith for different reasons, he says.

"Saudi Arabia is an institutionally religious state. Indonesia has religion tied into its culture," says Mughal.

But Muslim immigrants to Europe also show strong ties to their religion, either as a defense mechanism in the face of a perceived threat, or because of an effort to cling to identity, he contends.

He detects a link between insular communities and commitment to faith regardless of what religion is involved. It is prevalent in Muslim Saudi Arabia, but he has seen it among Israeli Jews as well, he says.

"The Israeli Jewish perspective is that (the dispute with the Palestinians) is a conflict of land and religion which are integrally linked," Mughal says.

"What does play a role in that scenario is a sense of isolationism and seclusion in Israeli Jewish religious communities, a growing trend to say, 'Our way is the only way,'" he says.

Religious leaders of all faiths need to combat those kinds of attitudes because of the greater diversity people encounter in the world today, he argues.

They have a responsibility to teach their congregations "that if they are following a religion, it is not as brutal or exclusive as possible," Mughal says. "Things are changing. The world is a different place from what it was even 20 years ago."

Politicians, too, "need to take these issues quite seriously," he says.

"In the Middle East there are countries - the Saudi Arabias - where you need to be saying that diversity, while it may not be a part of the country, is something they have to deal with when moving in a globalized area," he says.

But Senzai, the political scientist, says that it's also important for the West to take the Muslim world on its own terms.

"Many Muslims want religion to play a role in politics," he says. "To assume that everyone around the world wants to be like the West - that they want liberal secular democracy - is an absurd idea."

- CNN's Nima Elbagir and Atika Shubert contributed to this report.

- Newsdesk editor, The CNN Wire

Filed under: 9/11 • Islam • Middle East

soundoff (5,459 Responses)
  1. Martin

    Jesus Christ performed at the Wilbur Theater on Friday night, the video is at wickedimproper . com. He was great, thank you Jesus.

    December 4, 2011 at 8:40 am |
  2. MisterE

    Ridiculous article. This is like saying all Russians held communistic beliefs... but when communism fell, you discovered how many weren't actually communists; they were forced into following the program.

    December 4, 2011 at 8:40 am |
    • Prabu

      That is a very good point, MisterE. I am giving you many internets now.

      December 4, 2011 at 8:48 am |
  3. KC

    Fear! Fear of getting beaten for showing a woman's face. Fear of getting acid in the face for not accepting a proposal. Fear of being forced to be a suicide bomber.
    That is a religion of fear, terrorism, and hate.

    December 4, 2011 at 8:39 am |
  4. Lor

    A part of the reason I think is because of the subjugation of women and the lack of education in science and scientific theories. I think this goes for all religious fanatics. I do not believe all Muslins are fanatical either. All religions have their fanatics or ultra believers.

    December 4, 2011 at 8:38 am |
  5. Muneef

    Ought to visit and read this link;

    December 4, 2011 at 8:38 am |
  6. Byron Mullet

    Islam is an open hand and clenched fist, fear based ideology for world domination, not a religion. Islam IS a human rights violation. The real question should be: How many secret Christians are forced to wear burka's?

    December 4, 2011 at 8:38 am |
    • Sherman

      what about secret morman underwear? and what you said is not true that is the official spin so we can bomb them.

      December 4, 2011 at 8:45 am |
  7. One11one

    Jesus doesn't believe in religious tolerance, he sends people to hell for not believing in him.

    December 4, 2011 at 8:37 am |
  8. Antonio

    I have to admit Muslims are more faithful than any other religion on this planet. The biggest thing I have noticed is Muslims are more of a family. Always helping and wanting to let others know about their faith. Islam is not a cult either! Sure you have those who twist Islam into being violent, but it is not true. It is peace and I have to admit that I am considering becoming Muslim.

    December 4, 2011 at 8:36 am |
    • Ahmed Jassim

      Thank you, you just reading my mind

      December 4, 2011 at 8:40 am |
    • Now that was dumb

      Antonio, if that really is your name, Way to go for being the one Catholic in the world to stick up for tolerance.

      December 4, 2011 at 8:43 am |
    • Ahmed Jassim

      Now that was dumb is that you real name , well i guess it fit you

      December 4, 2011 at 8:44 am |
    • Sherman

      "Its all Happening." I read the first two chapters for the first time last night. If they had not persecuted and killed Gaddafi I never would have done so.

      December 4, 2011 at 8:47 am |
    • Now that was dumb

      Ahmed, You're clever. Did they teach you that at a Madrasah in between camel-milking sessions?

      December 4, 2011 at 9:51 am |
  9. BCB

    Where ignorance goes, so too does religious fervor. You need to look no further for an answer.

    December 4, 2011 at 8:35 am |
  10. KGill

    If you are Muslim you have to believe in :-

    The Man is made out of clay. ( man is made out of tens of elements, water being a major one). Its Ironic in Hindu and Buddhist texts, Man is clearly stated that he made of five elements (earth,wind, fire..and so on)
    Mother Teresa is in Hell. And so is 3/4 of the worlds population. Koran explicity states all non-believers are going to hell.
    The earth is flat.
    Believe in Jinns, Angels- people only who Mohammed could see.

    Please read Anwar Sheikh- Islam and Arab Imperialism.

    December 4, 2011 at 8:33 am |
    • flip1

      Says you..........

      December 4, 2011 at 8:44 am |
    • Sherman

      the bible says dust. dust of the earth, I think its a language interpretation. and it means just we are from this earth, we are not some species from another planet.. we are part of the ecosystem...etc. and no one is going to hell or heaven its all here.

      December 4, 2011 at 8:50 am |
  11. Ahmed Jassim

    People In America can say whatever they want to say about Islam and we still going to better than them, we have history which you don't have, we have families stick together which you don't have since you let your kids move out the house once they are 18 then they forget they have mothers and fathers, our Economy is better than your country Economy because of our Sharia law.
    people in America whatever you do and whatever you say you will never be better than Muslims

    December 4, 2011 at 8:33 am |
    • Antonio

      Islam is great. I'm not Muslim, but considering to become Muslim and studying Islam. Muslims are truly more of a family then any other. I applaud you.

      December 4, 2011 at 8:39 am |
    • Mirosal

      You are right about one thing.. we Americans CAN say anything we'd like about Islam, because no one will barge into my house at 3AM, arrest me, put me on trial and execute me for blaspheming your desert-roaming, hallucinating ped-o-phi-le of a 'prophet'. He DID consumate a marriage with a NINE year old girl, right?? right?? yes or no, that's ALL you have to answer there.

      December 4, 2011 at 8:42 am |
    • flip1

      Na, na, na.

      December 4, 2011 at 8:45 am |
    • popseal

      Religion is what people do to try to placate a distant and angry god. Islam is filled with insecurity, therefore its adherents must work very hard at the religion. Were it not for oil, the Islamic world would still be herding goats. Becoming parasites in the West is better than second class citizenship in oppressive third world stink holes.

      December 4, 2011 at 8:46 am |
    • Ahmed Jassim

      Mirosal get out from your own bubble and travel to the middle east , go and see the Muslims and you should socialize with them, to understand them, yeah we are Muslims we respect all the other religions, we don't force anyone to become Muslim, it's their choice if they want to become one or not.

      December 4, 2011 at 8:48 am |
    • Now that was dumb

      Your economy is better? That's just because the linchpin of your economy is a camel in the middle of the Sahara named Fred, which incidentally is the name of my 45 year old uncle who still lives with his mother. He's not Muslim though, he's just retarded...Like you.

      December 4, 2011 at 8:49 am |
    • Ahmed Jassim

      Now that was dumb haha i love reading your comments because it shows how your parents raised you. it doesn't matter if we use camels or not , we still have better economy and life than you . Thanks to our Sharia law

      December 4, 2011 at 8:52 am |
    • Now that was dumb

      Ahmed, Why are you so obsessed with camels?

      December 4, 2011 at 9:52 am |
    • BT

      Hahahahahahaha......you are joking, right? 😀

      December 4, 2011 at 9:53 am |
    • BT

      Islamic culture is far inferior to Westerners....their foolish pride and narrow minds that have the inability to see beyond Muhammad is holding their entire culture back from greater things. The difference, as the article states, is ENLIGHTENMENT happened centuries ago. The Islamic world never got that. Arabic countries are either oil wealthy or violent and intolerant....that's it. BTW nice forests you guys have in your parts of the world....I guess hot desert can make an entire populace hallucinate for a few thousand years lol

      December 4, 2011 at 10:00 am |
    • Antonio

      To "Now that was dumb" – Antonio is my middle name and given to me by my deceased father.

      By no means am I Catholic and in fact I am not religious at all. For the record I'm Black or African American, or whatever the correct term is these days... Islam, to me, is the only faith where there are no gray areas. It is clear and to the point. The many Muslims that I see in the city are always shunned for those Muslims who believe in violence. I've always wanted to learn more about Islam, but not from Nation of Islam in the United States either... I'm wanting to learn the true meaning and beliefs of Islam for Farrakhan, to me, does not teach the true meaning and beliefs of Islam.

      To Ahmed – Stay strong and do not let others get you upset or anything... I don't know you, but keep your thoughts and message positive. Don't fall the hatred and bigots of the world either.

      December 4, 2011 at 10:59 am |
  12. Charles

    Religious is not the same as spiritual.

    December 4, 2011 at 8:32 am |
    • JBoss


      December 4, 2011 at 8:36 am |
  13. Skeptic

    Liberals and Atheists Are More Intelligent. See http://reason.com/blog/2010/02/24/why-liberals-and-atheists-are

    December 4, 2011 at 8:32 am |
  14. Russell

    Perhaps Muslims are less educated, overall. An education and a study of religion and history leads one to the conclusion that, though God is great, religion often falls short. As I heard one person say, "I don't have a problem with God, but I'm not always wild about the fan club." Since we are human, we must guard against misinterpretation, our desire to be right, and other factors that cause us to miss God's intent and go off course. Strict adherence to one interpretation is evidence of not keeping an open mind. And it's that open mind – the mind that God gave us – that helps us to grow, resist perversions of God's desires for us, and come to a fuller, more mature relationship with our creator.

    December 4, 2011 at 8:31 am |
    • Mick

      Russell. An excellent answer. I wish we could all be as levell headed as yourself to the problem of religion and what it means.

      December 4, 2011 at 8:40 am |
    • Sherman

      Actually they are more educated. By far the American Southern Christians are less educated. and they are getting worse every year. Sometimes I can't even make myself understood in commerce here that is how stupid they are.

      December 4, 2011 at 8:41 am |
    • flip1

      "Imagine if there was no religion......"

      December 4, 2011 at 8:47 am |
    • Muneef

      John Lennen said that and died for it...

      December 4, 2011 at 8:50 am |
    • Now that was dumb

      Assuming that we don't mistake reading a religious text (unless in a theology course) as being 'educated,' then all religious people are less educated, and stupid.

      December 4, 2011 at 8:53 am |
  15. concrv8ive

    ...simple answer to the question posed by this article: FEAR.

    December 4, 2011 at 8:31 am |
    • Oh, Really?

      Fear of what? Getting your head lopped off? Getting blown up in an airplane?

      Yeah, you're right. It's fear.

      And it's well-founded.

      December 4, 2011 at 8:33 am |
    • Alfredo


      December 4, 2011 at 8:36 am |
  16. AA

    Would like to see a more profound (critical) investigation by CNN on the origins of Islam, comparisons with Christianity and Judaism at specific times in history, and not be influnced (threatened) by the followers of the mohamedian belief.
    It would be an eye opener, informative, and intersting as well.
    Now, dare if you will, CNN.

    December 4, 2011 at 8:31 am |
    • Oh, Really?

      They won't do that. It's not politically correct.

      That's why CNN has lost all its cred.

      December 4, 2011 at 8:35 am |
    • flip1

      Its not religion per se, its the people that use it as an excuse to go around and use it to kill off their neighbors and anything else they see as being threatenting to them; politics and nationalism are religions twin sisters, all three used for the same ends of the person or people that they want to use them for.

      December 4, 2011 at 8:50 am |
  17. Sherman

    There is a passion that is like we humans and in Christianity there is no passion and Judiasim seems almost like the business of getting into heaven. I see Buddhist and Hindus got the short shrift in this article as they also do in the Koran as Muhammad mentions Jews and Christians only, I like the safety of the love and respect and caring (and passion) that the relationship of husband and wife are given, but i think the guys went way way too far on the interpretation. Besides its all about the rules of organized society where there were none, and the fear of death, which is the reason humans do everything they do. Distraction. Being good is not all in everyone's DNA as it is in some. For some virtue is its own reward. As a group, I like them exceedingly even though I am the most independent of women. They are so sure of themselves and so smart. The women are funny and sweet. I want our country to stop the demonizing of a religion, a group of tribes, a region. No one can force a belief on you. That at least will always be sacrosanct. I live in the bible belt and these people are totally out to lunch. and way stupid. scary stupid – but after 30 years I am no more a believer in Jesus than I was when the story hit my ears at 3 in Sunday school. CNN, if you want to know what differences were so apart, read Karen Blixen's take on it. She said that no one stood between Farah (her major domo) and God.

    December 4, 2011 at 8:30 am |
  18. unowhoitsme

    Muslims are the biggest Hypocrites...they might be religious, then they turn around are mean and cruel to other human beings.

    December 4, 2011 at 8:30 am |
    • Alex

      and you are clueless

      December 4, 2011 at 8:34 am |
  19. R

    It's called fear.

    December 4, 2011 at 8:29 am |
  20. judith griffin

    i am curious about muslims with viels cover their mouths and noses only eyes so what about driver license here in americans. i have seen them wear viels women drive cars in florida and mississippi. they should take viels out while take pictures for driver licenses. i saw some women refused to take it off so police wont give them pass driver lic. do they take it off while taking ipictures for driver licenses. get rid of viels. thanks

    December 4, 2011 at 8:28 am |
    • Sherman

      I would feel very sorry for them in Mississippi. You have absolutely no right to judge them at all. I would say to you, it is you and your people that will bring our entire country down. I think you should get an education so that your stupidity does not curse all of the USA.

      December 4, 2011 at 8:37 am |
    • Oh, Really?

      Veils and burquas are not allowed. But in California you can wear a Groucho Marx disguise if you want.

      December 4, 2011 at 8:37 am |
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About this blog

The CNN Belief Blog covers the faith angles of the day's biggest stories, from breaking news to politics to entertainment, fostering a global conversation about the role of religion and belief in readers' lives. It's edited by CNN's Daniel Burke with contributions from Eric Marrapodi and CNN's worldwide news gathering team.